The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors voted last week in favor of an annually renewed tobacco retail license. The license would include a yearly fee for all 104 tobacco vendors in the county.

The ordinance, supported by a 4-1 vote on March 22, includes a fee of $318 per year. The funds will be used to support tobacco education and enforcement programming.

While it was a preliminary vote, the decision is a major step toward addressing underage access to tobacco. The final vote will be on April 5, and the proposal is expected to pass.

The county plans to run at least one compliance check on vendors per year. First-time violators will face a 60-day suspension of tobacco sales. Businesses found in violation four times in the span of five years can lose their tobacco licenses.

A recent study conducted by the Santa Cruz County Tobacco Education Coalition indicates local vendors have been in poor compliance with the 18 years or older requirement.

In Santa Cruz County, 27 percent of vendors sold to underage youth during the survey conducted in August 2010.

Compared to the state average of 8.5 percent, this number is alarming to local representatives and community members.

The survey indicated that each area of the county performed differently. District 1 Supervisor John Leopold said in Soquel 67 percent of stores sold to underage smokers, and so did 47 percent of vendors in Live Oak.

Leopold said 42 percent of retailers sold to minors in unincorporated parts of the county overall. He said it is the county’s responsibility to address this disparity.

“I consider that an epidemic,” Leopold said. “We’re clearly not doing what we can to prevent the sale of cigarettes to minors, and we need to step up our efforts.”

Since the study, local representatives have been grappling with how to tackle the problem. The retail license and accompanying programs have gained broad community support.

Many local organizations support the ordinance, including the Dominican Hospital Respiratory Care Services and the American Cancer Society.

While unincorporated areas of the county had the highest percentage of sales, the city of Santa Cruz didn’t fair well either. With 26 percent of vendors selling to minors, the city is on board to reduce sales to minors.

Mayor Ryan Coonerty said he supports the new tobacco retail license.

“This is one more step we can make to make sure we have a healthy community,” he said. “I think the tobacco license [fee] gives us the tools to make sure tobacco doesn’t get into the hands of minors.”

District 5 Supervisor Mark Stone was the sole opposition among the Board. He argued that businesses had not been given the chance to makes changes before imposing a fee.

“The issue that I have with the proposed ordinance is not the need to combat teen smoking, but rather the process that will best accomplish our goals,” according to the Board of Supervisors’ minutes. “Imposing a fee on vendors during these economic times should be a last resort and not an initial proposal.”

Stone said he wanted to propose an amendment that included business owners in the regulation conversation.

“I think any time we regulate people without involving them in the discussion, we are not having good government practices,” he said. “I was trying to come up with a better community situation for people in the Valley who would be subsidizing the program elsewhere in the county.”

Under the circumstances, Stone said he will be voting in favor of the ordinance on April 5.

A local 7-11 owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, said the new license is not likely to affect business at the store.

“Nobody ever stops smoking,” the owner said. “They can gripe about it all they want, but it’s not going to change.”

The county has taken on the responsibility of reducing underage access to tobacco in spite of the often discouraging nature of the issue.

Supervisor Leopold said he is looking forward to the impact of the tobacco retail license on the Santa Cruz community.

“Hopefully,” he said, “Clerks at stores that sell cigarettes will be better trained not to sell to minors.”